Once upon a time, there was a young woman who traveled the world to “find herself.” She found a whole lot more than she bargained for – a business, a calling and a transformative way of being that would permeate through the next few decades. This is her story (and since her is me – I shall write in the first person).
In this post-COVID era, the year of quiet quitting, rising nationalism and even old-school wars breaking out – I can’t help but wonder if the hyper-organized world we live in, where meandering and getting lost is rarely an option, is to blame. It frustrates me. Rewind to early 2000’s….Clank. Rustle. “shhh! Você vai acordá-los.” I try piece together the vowels and consonants of a foreign language I have not yet learned on my three years abroad. Castellano? No. French? Non. My ears wake up slowly and recognize the melodic, and slightly more guttural Portuguese of my Brazilian dorm mates. The crisp air on my face reminds me: I’m in Bariloche, Patagonia in Argentina – miles away from my home town Cape Town. I remember then, the girls discussing their 4 am departure the night before when everyone from Hostel41below headed to the “apres ski bar” down the road after a day of backcountry skiing.
I pull the covers over my head and drift back into a deep slumber – a mix of English and Spanish – dreamy conversations inching their way into my sub-conscious. I awake the next morning to find my new friends have left, and with them, my entire wardrobe. Apart from my pyjamas and still-drying ski suite, all my clothes are gone. It seems that 6-girls packing in the dark is a higher risk to my already-tight travel budget than I had anticipated. I pull out my “little black book” and jot down another point under “crisp white linen”….“Lockable hanging cupboard so people don’t pack your clothes!”
This experience, although seemingly insignificant, was the birth of my first small business – a backpackers hostel I started when I returned to Cape Town, shortly after my 23rd birthday. The little Black Book was my first stab at user experience design and experiential learning – I had a nagging voice in my head always striving for perfection – the perfect stay. The smell of coffee and baking muffins in the morning, the soft touch of clean pressed linen – the melody of Jorge Drexler’s upbeat lyrics mixing with heated discussions around the fireplace – these are some of the touchpoints of a backpackers hostel, the nuances of a place where any tomorrow is possible. There was a magic that happened when I solo traveled to new places – discovering the distinctions of Tyrolean dialects, tasting deep-fried crickets in Chiang Mai, being swept off my feet by an emboldened tango dancer in Palermo. At best, a younger me would describe this feeling as “a love for travel and adventure” – a sort of golden glow or twinkle in a stranger’s eye that feels like authenticity, like connection.
I reflect back and can now articulate that the magic I felt when I backpacked in my twenties was the first glimpse of becoming a better, more authentic version of myself. By being in places so unlike my home, I could both appreciate the home’s nuances, and criticize it’s limitations without fear of being rejected. In meeting people from different cultures and beliefs, I began to recognize the best versions of myself, of whom I hoped to become. I began to understand multiple perspectives and multiple truths as I took the time to deeply engage with travelers from different places or locals with whom I communicated in broken sentences, wild gestures and sparkling eyes. I actually became the best version of myself while I traveled – open-minded, confident, kind, self-assured, cheeky – these were the tools I needed to backpack through South America or Asia without a cell phone, a guide or a plan. I hustled hard! I always had an odd job to pay for my travels – teaching skiing, working at the Irish pub, making beds in a hotel, teaching English in the evenings. Throughout my journey I sought places and physical spaces to connect with other like-minded travelers who were not on a set itinerary or group tour.
Creatively designing physical and online spaces and guest journeys for this magic to happen, for travellers to converge and connect – to debate, laugh, forge friendships and fall in love became my obsession for the next 14 years. Out of the little black book emerged the foundations of what would become an award-winning hostel brand (Once Travel) a few years later serving over 23 000 guests a year, in 300 beds over two cities. We chose the name “Once in Cape Town” because Once is at the beginning of any great story – and from the thousands of travelers who chose to stay with us, we received countless stories of friendship, adventure, love and even marriage that had started at Once in Cape Town.
I noticed this magic was not limited to the travelers who visited – our team began to change and transform too. Once quiet and reserved team members seemed to come out of their shell. Some experimented with new and foreign languages – many embracing the oldest technique of pillow talk or love language to achieve this end. We watched relationships blossom, families starting and strong bonds of friendships crossing the globe. Unexpectedly, a young South African who had arrived shy and listless with statistically low hopes for completing tertiary education or employment in South Africa, might find themselves studying innovation in Switzerland, DJ’ing amaPiano in Mexico or backpacking through Thailand off the back of a new friendship and the inevitable broadening of horizons. This University of Life and the power of connection to “the other” offered a new breed of hope that was infectious.
In 2017, myself and two co-workers started “Khwela Womxn” (Khwela means “to climb” in isiXhosa) – a non-profit academy with a vision to help young unemployed womxn enter the tourism industry. Our central thesis was gleaned off our lived experience of working in the tourism industry: that to design and deliver excellent service and guest experiences, one needs have felt the magic – one has to have experienced travel. We designed an experiential learning course that included the hard skills of tourism (housekeeping, reservations, guest management, experience design) and an internship, but perhaps the most transformative part of the curriculum was a three-week road trip through the country and neighbouring Swaziland. The young women we accepted into the academy were from varying backgrounds, all unemployed and most had never leisure traveled away from home, away from their comfort zone.
In leaving the comfort zone or The Known World as Joseph Campbell called it in The Heroes Journey, the traveller or hero feels a discomfort or dissonance when embarking on an adventure that sends many non-heroes back to the safe confines of the status quo. And yet – the reward for pushing through the comfort zone and into the unknown world is worth the anxiety and discomfort that comes with uncertainty – because it leads to a transformation. As one brave Khwela woman shared: “I am stronger than I thought.” In conquering her fears and stepping over the threshold of Bloukrans bungee jumping bridge (the highest in the world) – she realizes on reflection that summonsing the bravery to do seemingly impossible things is empowering and that this feeling could easily be applied in a work environment. After 2 years, we had trained 50 women, 40 of whom were working in the tourism industry, some even on their path to promotion (pre-Covid).
I have met talented young people who seem to be a shadow of themselves – wracked by anxiety and self-loathing. I can’t help but think: “You need to go on a journey, go and get lost. Go find yourself.” Researchers have long tried to explain the transformative power of a backpacking trip, sabbatical or adventure holiday. What essential levers lie within this ancient rite of passage, and how do so many young people benefit emotionally and psychologically by such an abstract event? I chose this subject of transformation through travel as my master’s thesis at UCT graduate school of business, and argued that people who travel and push themselves out of their comfort zones (who choose the uncertainty of traveling in a foreign place without the confines of an itinerary or the comfort of friends) will emerge from the experience personally transformed. They emerge better equipped to handle the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) of the business world. Carol Dweck’s characteristics of a Growth Mindset epitomizes the attributes of many travelers or backpackers I met along my career:
- Embraces challenges
- Believes failures are just temporary setbacks and views failure as an opportunity to learn
- Believes mistakes are an essential part of learning
- Believes intelligence and talents can be developed
- Welcomes feedback from others in order to learn
- Believes feedback is a guide for further improvement, and views it as a source of information
- Views other’s success as a source of inspiration and information
- Believes effort is the path to mastery
OK hang on Pollyanna. It’s not all sunshine and roses – surely there’s some hard work at play?
The central part of experiential learning or Transformative Travel (the industry abbreviates this to TT) is a reflective practice. Reflection is the art of looking back at an action or event, in order to process the experience. For some travellers this is in the form of a blog, travel diary, social media post or even storytelling around the fire. Reflecting on an experience is so much more than simply recounting it.
When I reflect, I ask myself:
What did I experience today? What happened?
How did it make me really feel? At least 3-6 feeling words (not good, fine, ok).
What did I learn about myself today?
What would I do differently tomorrow?
At business school, I learnt about the term Metacognition – a sub-type of reflection, the act of “thinking about thinking.”
I pushed the reflections further, to ask:
Did this feeling or way of thinking serve me, or might I benefit from a different reaction?
How might I apply this learning to my ordinary life?
As an enthusiastic member of Entrepreneurs Organization (EO) I have leaned into this reflection the last five years by sharing it with my forum mates every single month – these are 8 other successful entrepreneurs committed to self-improvement in all spheres of life, and holding each other accountable for our personal growth in the pursuit of a good life. Aristotle called this pursuit “Eudaimonia” – that life is worth living when it aims at becoming a good life.
Ironically – the road to the good life and any journey is not only marred with discomfort and dissonance – it is defined by them. As a parent to young children, I struggle with this notion as we navigate a world so easily controlled and planned out by technology. How can I explain to Julia, my 9-year-old that I chose to get lost in downtown Addis Ababa if I could just use Google Maps? My 6-year-old boy Leo may ask why I wasted time haggling for a tuk-tuk in Kho Tao if I can just use an Uber? Why should I follow my curiosity and stumble across a backyard eatery in Amman with no English menu but mansaf and mulukhiyah that draws all the locals, instead of simply ordering Deliveroo or Doordash? Because the best memories shared around the campfire are not the days where everything went according to plan – the best memories are always the ones where we got lost or overcame an obstacle while making unlikely friends.
After exiting my business in December 2022, my husband and I took our two young kids to Canada for a three months sabbatical. For three months we set up a base in a small skiing village in British Columbia, and disconnected with our ordinary life and our known world. We embraced the Canadian winter and skied 51 days out of 90, frequently getting lost and embracing the moment spontaneously with the kids. The sabbatical helped me define my new reality – to navigate a new reality of still feeling like an entrepreneur, but being someone who no longer owned a business. The more lost we got – the further away from the structures and routines that defined our daily life of school and work – the more I found myself and connected with my kids and husband as simply…me.
Consider these words your invitation – your nudge – to embrace the adventure again and to push yourself out of your comfort zone. Embrace your inner traveler and get lost. Meet new people – learn a new language or how to play the Ukulele. Take a sabbatical with your family to a far-flung place you’ve always dreamt of visiting. Work remotely. Start a business. Make a new friend from a different background.
As Aragorn (ranger of the North) shares wisely or The Artist Formerly Known As Prince serenades boldly:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”